ICorrect and Celebrity Rumor Patrol

8 04 2011

What I love most about celebrity culture is the constant battle for dominance amongst its various players. My own work focuses on these tensions, drawing out how gossip media outlets, for example, are based on the idea of breaking down the celebrity facade so carefully constructed by publicists, managers and even the celebrity him/herself.

Tabloids are built on the premise that audiences want to know more about the stars than the stars will give up. Audiences love to play the game of determining what is “real” about the star and what is “fake” or controlled by other forces. Are Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson really dating, or is it just for publicity? It’s the ability of tabloids (and, of course, blogs) to intervene into the more controlled system that makes them so appealing.

Is she really going out with him?

At times, this intervention into the star’s image has radical implications. Britney’s shift from good girl pop star to party girl to Hollywood cautionary tale is largely related to the tabloid construction of her image. She and her manager/publicist/other official team members work(ed) hard to counter these constructions and regain control of her image, its circulation and its meaning in popular culture. I’ve written about a component of this particular struggle before, and am currently working on an article about how bloggers offer a new sort of intervention into celebrity culture that draws on both their roles as audience members and as producers or official commentators on celebrity culture. I’ll be presenting a part of that project at ICA this May.

Anyway, such interventions are a necessary part of the celebrity system, in part because they keep us the celebrity in the public eye. Celebrities (and their handlers) know this, and certainly turn to media outlets (including tabloids) to attempt to counter stories that tarnish their image. They typically turn to more “legitimate” celebrity media sources, notably places like People magazine, because they’ll be treated with kid gloves and get the chance to at least attempt to regain control over a tarnished pubic image in a way that gives the appearance of authenticity and truth.

In the midst of a potential divorce scandal, Britney turned to People to set the record straight

This is nothing new, stars have been doing this since the earliest days of the studio system. For example, in exchange for “exclusive” information, Louella Parsons would allow stars to put out their side of the story during scandals (often ones she herself broke and perpetuated). In addition to using these media outlets, celebrities now can harness the tools of new media (indeed, the same tools that are used to expose them via blogs etc) to attempt to control their own images. Celebrities have official websites, some cultivate relationships with fan sites, and many have turned to Twitter as a place to get the news “direct” from the source–the celebrity herself.

Within this tension filled system comes a new, and frankly puzzling, mode for the celebrity to “correct” rumors and media reports: ICorrect. The site’s founder, David Tang, was the guest on Wednesday’s episode of The Colbert Report. You can watch the interview here. Basically, for an annual fee, Tang’s site offers a place for celebrities to write their own corrections/rebuttals to any and all rumors they feel need to be addressed. My cursory look at the site reveals such shocking revelations as Tommy Hilfiger countering the (age old) rumor that he doesn’t want black people to wear his clothes and Cherie Blair denying she will take part in Strictly Come Dancing (the British Dancing with the Stars. Riviting.

I have to say, I don’t get it. Why does this site exist? Who is reading it? And what’s in it for the celebrity, who could find many other outlets to do this sort of image correction/management? The stars have historically turned to places like People because they already have an audience, and I just don’t see a large audience being drawn to this site (in part because the layout is terrible, imo). It seems the cache is that the celebrity (or, let’s face it, a manager or publicist) can quickly correct and control a rumor. Not every star or rumor can get on the cover of People, yet every little rumor can play an important role in the star’s overall image. So ICorrect offers a way for stars to deal with any intervention into their public image.

But how does that make ICorrect different from Twitter or a celebrity’s official website? I’m not seeing how the fact the correction is on ICorrect makes the audience feel it is more “real” or “true.” ICorrect positions itself as “the first website to correct permanently any lies, misinformation and misrepresentations that permeate in cyberspace.” Um, how is a correction on this site any more “permanent” than any other?

In his interview with Colbert, Tang says ICorrect addresses the fact that sites like Twitter don’t verify that the person tweeting/writing is actually the celebrity. But Twitter does verify “well known account users” and gives them a “verified account” checkmark to indicate they have passed the “real” test. It’s all here. So, again, how is ICorrect offering a new sort of intervention into the gossip game that allows celebrities greater control? Yes, Twitter can be more fleeting, but, really, so are most rumors in terms of impact on a celebrity’s image. Remember when Ashlee Simpson got busted for being drunk at McDonald’s? Yeah, I thought so. Are audiences going to look up the “truth” about older rumors? Is such permanence really necessary, particularly in the age of new media where celebrity rumors are constantly changing?

Furthermore, how ICorrect is supposed to reach a larger audience than any other source? This is the most important part of rumor control. If no one reads it, who cares? Now, when celebrities use their websites or Twitter to counter a rumor, you often see those posts/tweets pop up on blogs or in other celebrity media as part of the story. This is crucial for the recuperation of control over a particular story. I know my gossip blog reading isn’t what it used to be, but I haven’t seen ICorrect popping up anywhere. The first time I heard about it was on Colbert. It needs way more access to the media side of the production system in order to become truly effective.

ICorrect also claim it “enables the Corrector [celebrity] to post precise corrections, without the danger of third parties quoting them out of context.” How are they going to prevent third party persons, like a blogger who reposts the “correction,” from quoting them out of context? If they need outside media exposure to bring attention to the correction, how can such a thing be controlled?

So while I love a good intervention into the celebrity system of production, this is, well, lame. It strikes me as an attempt to catch up to new media’s impact on celebrity culture, but one which is way behind. As my friend Zach would say, “Welcome to 2005!”





Thinking about New Media: Interactivity

19 02 2011

My TiVo is on the verge of exploding with films about stardom, but I’m going to take a brief break from that series. Spring break will be here soon (one more week of classes!) and TiVo and I have a date for a stardom film series that will hopefully result in some more posts as well. But for now, I’ve been working on a couple of more think piece oriented posts about new media and its influence not only on how we get our content, but also on what that content looks like and how audiences actually engage with/read/invest in that content.

I’ve been considering new media in a broad sense this semester, for a variety of reasons, and here I am just trying to work out some major ideas that have been floating around in my head. This is sort of like a comps exam (because weren’t those fun?) where I’m trying to get a hold of scholarly approaches to new media and relate them to my own particular interests. In short, these are some ideas informed by a lot of the reading I’ve been doing this semester as well as some questions that I’m still working through. This is the beginning of my thinking—not the end—so I would definitely appreciate feedback.

What’s so “new” about new media?
The umbrella term “new media” has been used to refer to a wide range of media platforms and technologies. But the vast array of platforms makes it somewhat confusing to really think through exactly what new media are, and, indeed, what’s so new about them. If Netflix streaming is clearly a new media platform, does that mean that Netflix home delivery system is not? Or, is an iPhone the same sort of new media as Netflix? Each technology serves a different function, but the potential spaces of overlap (using your iPhone to watch streamed movies as opposed to using it to make a phone call or send a text) makes, I think, a precise definition of “new media” pretty challenging.

But then again, part of the shifts brought about by new media come from the fact that the technologies are so varied and can be harnessed for many different purposes. Though the technologies that have reshaped everyday communication and media are vital to understanding this new category, but, as I suggest to my students based on the work of numerous scholars in this area (including Henry Jenkins, Sonia Livingstone, Nancy Baym and many others), what’s so new about new media are the ways the technologies enable users to interact with information and with each other. These interactions are tied to how the technology functions or what it makes possible (e.g. the iPhone lets you make phone calls, text, surf the web etc through its digital platform) but also to how individuals actually use that technology in their everyday lives. (

What’s so new about new media, then, is the fact that users can be both producers and consumers of content (even if that production is limited to a very small audience). New media trouble traditional media consumption models that assume users/audiences are on the receiving end of the communication and do little but absorb meaning. Instead, new media shed light on the range of (sometimes invisible) active meaning making that goes when one consumes media and/or communicates with others through these platforms. While it’s easy to see how things like iPhones or Twitter are considered new media, I think we should also consider how older media forms have transformed to meet the demands of our new media society. I think new media, for all the fancy technological advancements, also offer new sorts of ways to think about and engage with “old media.”

One example I’ve been considering recently is the case of reality television. Reality TV certainly has roots traced back to the early days of television (in the form of game shows, documentaries, etc), its explosion into our television consciousness within the past 10 years is, I think, tied to the simultaneous shifts in media platforms and consumption practices. In other words, I want to argue (and I know I’m not the first to do so) that reality TV is a form of new media. Even if you view it on regular “old” broadcast television, I think reality television embodies some important characteristics that, at the very least, strongly tie it (and its contemporary ubiquity/success as a genre) to new media.

1. Reality television assumes (varying levels of) interactivity
Some reality shows are explicitly built upon the audience as a participant in the production of the show, making new media technology and engagement central to the existence of the program. The most obvious examples here are reality shows, like American Idol or Big Brother, where audiences vote for their favorite contestants, thus securing participants a place on future episodes and, ultimately, choosing the winner of the show. Of course these votes come through a range of new media platforms, like text messages or online voting, but the key is that they enable the audience to play (or at least think they are playing) a vital role in creating content of the show.

Text message voting for American Idol

The success of Idol comes, in part, from the idea that we are the ones that are deciding who will be our next pop star or who will stay in the house for the next week. The (in)famous “Vote for the Worst” campaign that, for example, kept mediocre singer Sanjaya in the running for several weeks during the show’s sixth season, is clear evidence that audience participation shapes the show, and sometimes in ways unanticipated/unintended by the show’s producers. Nevertheless, if no one voted, there would be no show. The feeling of participation in the show is an important space for audience pleasure that hinges on interactivity.

There are, of course, elimination style shows where viewers do not directly vote for contestants, such as Survivor, The Bachelor/Bachelorette, Top Chef, Project Runway etc., as well as a range of reality television shows that do not feature any sort of elimination (docu-soaps like The Real Housewives or any number of celeb-reality shows focused on the private life of a star). But even these shows encourage audience interactivity as a key part of viewing the show. There is something about the focus on back stories of contestants or narratives about what goes on outside the competition (like on Top Chef) that calls up a certain notion of interactivity to me. That audiences are given “more” than “just” the competition narrative seems to be a different sort of engagement. Not sure how to work this out yet, but something about this extended engagement strikes me as more interactive than fictional TV in its style and form.

On one hand, I think new media technologies play an important role in increasing this sort of implied interactivity. Advances in digital and handheld cameras are important to how reality television is actually produced. For the most part, we’re not talking about the participants creating their own footage for the show, though we do sometimes get some glimpses of this (an old example: Britney and Kevin: Chaotic was based in large part on the actual footage shot by Brit-Brit and K-Fed during the early days of their courtship). I’ve written elsewhere about how this emphasizes her “authenticity” as a star, and that’s related to the way the digital camera allows the audience to interact with the real person behind the pop star image. Here’s an outtake that didn’t make the show that shows the use of her personal footage. You’ll see how riviting this footage is and why this show lasted a full half season!

Even without the sense of the footage being shot by the participants, digital technologies have increased the range of the voyeuristic eye of the camera, allowing it to more easily go wherever the “reality” is happening. We are in the homes, cars, work places, etc of reality show participants. The fact that the bathroom is the only place where cameras don’t go on The Real World means that we are able to get into the lives of the housemates and, in a sense, interact with–or at least observe–them at any and every moment.

But it’s also about how audiences are encouraged to engage with these shows that highlights the centrality of interactivity to the overall style and narrative of these programs. Fictional narrative television has, of course, long inspired fan communities and people who want to take their engagement with a show and its characters beyond the boundaries of the narrative offered in the weekly broadcast. I think narrative reality television shows as well as the non-audience voted elimination shows named above are increasingly built on the assumption that audiences engage with the characters/participants and narrative outside the boundaries of the weekly broadcast.

The internet plays a key role here, with character/participant blogs giving us a way to read beyond the actual events of the show itself. In other words, to interact with the characters/participants in other platforms as a way to extend viewing pleasure. I, for one, was pretty obsessed with the RHONJ blogs as a way to get each woman’s perspective on the drama of that week’s episode as a way to see what was left out in the actual episode. Yes, I know that many fictional television shows have websites where their characters “blog” about that week’s episode. I’m wondering if those stay as closely tied to the overall narrative of the show as reality TV character blogs? I have to admit that I don’t know because I don’t follow any fictional character blogs.

However, in another connection between “old” and “new” media, the reality shows have the added extratextual site of engagement in the tabloids. Print tabloids like Us Weekly and In Touch are increasingly built upon the backs of reality television stars. The women of The Hills, Teen Mom, or Keeping Up With the Kardashians would not have the same level of fame, nor would their shows have such high ratings, without the constant coverage from these outside sources. More on the connection between celebrity and reality in my next post.

Interacting with Teen Mom in tabloids

What’s fascinating to me is the “inside information” revealed by these gossip magazines is pretty much always the plot of the next week’s episode, as opposed to any new information! So they are giving audiences some information to bring with them to their viewing of the episode, allowing them to interact with the narrative using that knowledge, as well as encouraging them to watch the show. You don’t see Michael Scott on the cover of a magazine talking about his argument with Dwight on next week’s episode of The Office because he is clearly a fictional character. The appeal to “reality” in RTV means that even though we know these shows are edited and that the action is scripted or at least prompted by producers, we are still encouraged to see the participants as “real” people. Thus, by interacting with them in these outside sources, the audience enriches their viewing experience.

Audiences do have some choice in how they interact (or not) with these shows, a topic I will return to in a later post. Additionally, reality television is certainly not the only television genre where new media technologies have had an impact in form and content. Nevertheless, I think the case of reality TV provides some clear insight into the ties between new media interactivity and the production and consumption of media in this shifting landscape.





Stars–They Tweet Like Us!: Some Thoughts on Celebrity and Twitter

23 10 2010

This post is really overdue, as I’ve actually had it written for some time. I attended the *amazing* Flow 2010 Conference at UT-Austin just over three weeks ago, and this post is taken from the position paper I submitted and presented at that conference. I really cannot say enough positive things about this conference. It’s non-traditional set-up consists of panels where presenters have 5 minutes (no, really!) to discuss their position papers around a common topic and the rest of the time is used for discussion between panelists and audience. This allows for a really productive dialogue to emerge and everyone (from grad student to senior scholar) has the opportunity to participate. It meets every other year, and you can bet I will be submitting for 2012. I highly encourage any media scholars to check it out. Plus, Austin = awesome.

Since completing my dissertation on gossip blogs, I’ve been widening my view to think about intersections of celebrity culture with other forms of new media. Twitter and celebrity is basically a match made in heaven. I know Twitter can serve lots of different functions (and I highly recommend checking out the other position papers from the Flow Twittertube panel) , but its use by and for celebrities is really fascinating to me because it so perfectly encapsulates the private/public blurring that is inherent to the celebrity image. It’s also very distracting, as I can’t seem to go through a day without checking for Kanye’s latest tweets. Where is his antique fish tank anyway?

So here is my position paper, which explores how celebrities use Twitter to manage the private self and manage scandal. I will also mention that I have a post on celebrities using Twitter for more straightforward self-promotion that will appear on next week’s In Media Res. I’ll post the full link when it is published on Thursday, October 28.

Celebrity Twitter Feeds and the Illusion of Intimacy
The media product known as the celebrity emerges from a “circuit of celebrity production” in which various cultural intermediaries—the celebrity, her industry producers, the “legitimate” and the gossip-oriented celebrity media—feed off of each other in a constant struggle to control how that individual is represented to audiences.

In modern celebrity culture, the extratextual media coverage of stars has played an increasingly important role in promoting the “illusion of intimacy” between a star and her fans/audiences by elevating the private side of the image as the privileged site of meaning. Tabloids and other entertainment-oriented media forms encourage the audience to pursue the “real” person behind the star persona with the hope that, beneath the controlled surface, the star “really” is who she seems to be.

Tabloids, in particular, seek to disrupt the carefully constructed public image forwarded by the celebrity-industry producers (studios, publicists, managers, etc) through the revelation of the “unguarded” private self as the “real” or “authentic” star, often challenging the dominant meaning of the celebrity’s image. But the contradictory and ambivalent nature of celebrity means the circuit of production is a highly unstable process and no one player ever fully controls the meaning of the celebrity image for audiences. In other words, the meaning of the celebrity is constantly contested terrain.

Tabloids attempt to define the meaning of Angelina's image. This certainly is not sanctioned by her or her management. But nevertheless becomes an important part of how we read her image.

Social networking platforms, particularly Twitter, offer new insight into this fraught process of production by highlighting the ways in which the illusion of intimacy can be manipulated by various players in the circuit. On Twitter, unlike traditional celebrity media outlets, audiences are offered immediate and interactive engagements with the celebrity that (purportedly) originate outside of industry control and even specifically challenge other representations of the “real” celebrity. Though celebrity media outlets have also taken to Twitter, I suggest that Twitter offers the celebrity-industry intermediaries a way to recuperate control over the image using the same appeals to the unguarded and private self central to gossip media constructions of celebrity. That is, celebrity Twitter feeds recuperate celebrity-industry control over the image by explicitly engaging the same media discourses and platforms that typically disrupt that control.

The most successful celebrity Twitter users offer a glimpse of the everyday and even mundane details of their private lives, thus stressing the ordinary self behind the extraordinary public image.

Twitter’s appeal is based in its interactive nature, offering audiences a more direct sense of engagement with the celebrity than, say, reading a publicist-sanctioned interview in Vanity Fair. Though there is typically no way for a fan to know whether a Twitter feed is actually written by the celebrity (or to what degree other intermediaries influence the tweets), the very nature of Twitter as a social network gives at least the illusion of the celebrity herself as the sole author of her tweets. [NB: Annie Petersen has an excellent blog post about the believability of celebrity tweets]

This is not to suggest that celebrity tweets are not “real,” and indeed many are genuinely authored by the celebrity. Yet as a site of image production, celebrity Twitter feeds offer glimpses of the star’s private life that appear uncontrolled and authentic, even as these glimpses are limited and, often, deliberately staged. In this way, Twitter provides the celebrity and her intermediaries greater control over her image by engaging the same appeal to the unmediated and authentic self more typical of the tabloids.

The illusion of intimacy promoted by Twitter’s interactive access is also a site of struggle in which the star can challenge the tabloids’ construction of her as the “truth.” For example, in the days leading up to Lindsay Lohan’s court appearance and jail time, she used her Twitter account to challenge the negative way she was represented in the gossip media. Such a move uses the illusion of intimacy promoted by Twitter as a means to control the representation of her image to her most important audience, existing fans. In fact, she explicitly encouraged fans to “get the news straight from me” via her Twitter feed rather than turn to other media outlets, thus rejecting their representations of her as false and untrustworthy.

Of course, using Twitter cannot guarantee her version of her image will be the dominant one, and many of Lohan’s tweets have been used by the gossip media as further evidence of her instability. Nevertheless the ability to speak directly to her fans about the “truth” of her situation exploits the illusion of intimacy and offers Lohan and her producers a controlled platform from which to “fight back” against tabloid gossip in the midst of scandal. In these tweets, Lindsay attempts to control the scandal after she tested positive for drugs and alcohol just days after being released from jail:

Such image control is crucial if she wants to rebuild her public career post-incarceration. Within the contested terrain of celebrity culture, Twitter enables the celebrity to (at least appear to) bypass other players in the circuit of celebrity production, recuperate (if temporarily) control over her image and, most crucially, increase the illusion of intimacy with her audience/followers.